Tunisia dismisses official, announces corruption probe as riots reach capital

By Eileen Byrne and Roula Khalaf
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 12:25 AM

TUNIS - Tunisia's government on Wednesday announced the dismissal of the interior minister and plans to investigate corruption allegations as the rioting that has racked the country for weeks reached the capital, Tunis.

Army trucks were seen moving through streets on the city's outskirts late Tuesday, with police firing tear gas and shooting into the air to deter groups of youths who had torched shops and banks in poor neighborhoods. Some office workers headed for home early Wednesday in expectation of further unrest.

Rafik Belhaj Kacem's dismissal appeared to represent an attempt by President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to stop the protests, which had been confined to provinces in the country's interior. As the minister responsible for the police, Kacem had directed a crackdown on protesters that left at least 21 people dead, according to the government, but many more according to human rights groups.

Mohammed Ghannoushi, the prime minister, said at a news conference that committees would be formed to investigate the unrest and look into allegations of corruption, and that people detained during the demonstrations would be released.

The protests started in mid-December over unemployment, but analysts say they reflect wider frustrations with alleged high-level corruption and a lack of political freedom.

The government, which has announced plans to create 300,000 jobs, said it would also provide grants and health coverage to higher-education graduates if they participated in cultural, sports and developmental projects.

The government's moves came as international criticism of its handling of the riots sharpened, with the European Union saying it could not accept "the disproportionate use of force by the police against peaceful demonstrators."

The Tunisian authorities "should do everything they can to bring calm and to address the underlying social issues", said Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for Lady Ashton, the E.U. foreign affairs chief.

The United States said Tuesday it was deeply concerned by reports "of the use of excessive force by the government."

However, there was no sign Wednesday that the country's 75-year-old president was considering overtures toward the opposition, which has survived years of intimidation and exclusion from the officially controlled media.

"With these latest events we have come up against a blind obstinacy, a total refusal of any form of dialogue" on the part of the government, said onetime presidential candidate Ahmed Ibrahim of the former communist Ettajdid party.

He said that 60 years of single-party rule had led to a "deliberate depoliticization" of much of the public and that his party could find the right voice to speak to the restless unemployed if access to the media was freed up.

As a small crowd gathered Wednesday to inspect the smoking shell of a branch of the Arab Tunisian Bank in the capital, there was still a reluctance to comment publicly.

But in private some Tunisians preferred to blame the "clan" of the extended family of Leila Trabelsi, the president's second wife, for its enthusiastic participation in so many economic ventures in the small country, rather than to criticize the president himself.

- Financial Times

Khalaf reported from London.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company